Family Counseling Degree Program Information by Level

Family counseling degree programs explore theories of individual, marriage and family development, as well as prepare students for advanced careers in the field of counseling.

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Essential Information

Those who want to learn more about solving family problems can choose from a variety of educational options, including a certificate, a master's degree or a doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy. Along with coursework in addiction and marriage and family counseling theory and therapy techniques, these programs include clinical internships. Master's programs may have thesis and non-thesis options, while doctoral programs require completion of a research-intensive dissertation.

Certificate programs are often designed for healthcare professionals with at least a bachelor's degree, and some prior coursework in marriage and family therapy may be necessary. Master's programs have similar requirements, though healthcare experience isn't necessarily a prerequisite. Doctoral candidates typically hold a master's degree in a relevant field. These programs can prepare students for professional licensure as marriage and family therapists. Online programs are available.

Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy

Certificate programs in marriage and family therapy provide in-depth study of relationship problems of individuals, families and children. Since a variety of issues can occur within a family context, coursework focuses on different types of counseling approaches and treatments for family problems. Graduate certificate programs are typically limited to students who hold a master's degree in a related area, such as psychology or social work, who want to specialize in marriage and family counseling. Alternatively, there are a few certificate programs meant for professionals in other fields who want to learn more about dealing with family issues. That type of program is geared toward those with a bachelor's degree who are not interested in becoming clinical practitioners in family counseling. Acceptance in a graduate certificate program usually requires a bachelor's or master's degree. Depending on the applicant's background, marriage and family coursework in child, adolescent and family counseling may be required. Students may also need to have completed a certain amount of clinical experience.

Certificate programs include clinical internships in addition to focused coursework in family counseling issues. Some course topics may be:

  • Family therapy foundations
  • Addiction counseling
  • Play therapy applications
  • Issues in human sexuality
  • Spirituality in clinical treatment

Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy

Master's degree programs in marriage and family therapy are widely available and offer intense training in family counseling techniques and treatment approaches for a variety of problems and disorders in adults, teens and children. Students learn to help individuals and families with communication issues, abuse and other problems. This kind of program is geared for people entering the field who want to learn about helping families solve problems and preventing problems from occurring. Theories behind healthy and dysfunctional family relationships and processes for helping break through interpersonal issues are stressed in a typical master's degree program. Programs prepare people for work as counselors in a health facility or private practice. A bachelor's degree is required to enter a master's degree program, preferably in a related field. Schools may require prerequisite coursework in subjects such as human development, abnormal psychology, psychopathology and statistics if the applicant does not have such classes on their bachelor's degree record. In addition, some programs require an introductory course in counseling.

Master's degree programs include a mix of in-class study, clinical practica and internship opportunities. Some programs may offer a thesis or non-thesis option. Course topics may be:

  • Marriage and family counseling foundations
  • Assessing and treating abusive behavior
  • Ethical and legal issues in counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling and treatment
  • Counseling in group settings

Doctor of Philosophy in Family Therapy

Doctorate programs in family therapy give clinicians a chance for advanced study of theory, practice and research in couples and family therapy. The goal is to train expert practitioners and researchers as well as future educators by exploring the concepts and principles behind family counseling and focusing on practical experience. Often offered through a school's education department, the doctorate programs sometimes offer students a choice between a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program. They may also offer a Ph.D. degree in education with a family counseling emphasis. Most programs require a master's degree in marriage and family therapy or a master's degree in a related mental health field along with marriage and family coursework that is equivalent to a master's degree. Some basic courses that may be required include human development, marriage and family systems and marital therapy. Many Ph.D. programs are geared toward those who are licensed counselors, although it isn't necessarily a requirement.

In addition to advanced coursework in family relationships and issues, most Ph.D. programs also include an internship or similar practical experience as well as a dissertation. These programs may also include residency and foreign language requirements. Potential class subjects can include:

  • Contemporary family systems
  • Multicultural counseling techniques
  • Advanced clinical techniques in family counseling
  • Clinical counseling supervision
  • Legal and ethical issues in family counseling

Popular Career Options

Schools often tailor graduate certificate programs for people with a master's degree or above in a related mental health profession. This provides a way for currently working professionals to specialize in marriage and family therapy without having to get another graduate degree. Among the professionals who may benefit from this training are:

  • Social workers
  • Medical doctors
  • Nurses
  • Psychologists
  • Clergy members

Earning a doctoral degree in family counseling can lead to a number of different jobs within the family therapy field. Some possible jobs could be:

  • College counseling division head
  • Family therapist
  • Counseling group leader
  • Family therapy instructor
  • Guidance counselor

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a high job growth of 15% for marriage and family therapists in the 2014-2024 decade.The average salary for marriage and family therapists was $53,520 in May 2015, according to the BLS ( Higher-than-average wages were reported for those in state government positions.

Continuing Education, Certification and Licensing Information

The National Board for Certified Counselors and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy both offer credential programs that involve getting an education from an accredited program, having a certain amount of work experience and passing an exam. Both organizations also provide career resources and professional development opportunities for professionals in the field, and they are involved in the process of accreditation of educational programs that train family counselors. Most states require licenses for counselors, and requirements can vary. Certification requirements often mirror licensing requirements, and both professional organizations have information on individual state licensing regulations.

Certificate, master's degree and doctoral degree programs all provide those interested in becoming family counselors with a foundation of coursework and clinical experience. Graduates work in a number of different environments, and credentials are available from the National Board for Certified Counselors and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

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